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25 People Shaping the Future in Tech, Science, Medicine, Activism and More

The inventors, entrepreneurs and disrupters who are changing (and maybe saving) the world one brilliant idea at a time

25 People Shaping the Future

Fifty years after Rolling Stone published its first issue in November 1967 – and one year after the cataclysmic election of Donald Trump – we’re still looking ahead with determined optimism at the next half-century. Anchored by a cover story on Elon Musk, the 2017 edition of our Future Issue puts the spotlight on 25 visionaries, revolutionaries, entrepreneurs and disrupters who are already changing (and maybe saving) the world in politics, economics, tech, science, agriculture, medicine and more – from an “all-natural architect” to the frontwoman for tomorrow’s Democratic Party to the startup king looking to eliminate healthcare bureaucracy. Wonder what the future looks like? This list gives us a good glimpse.

the future issue

Ethan Hill/Redux

Kate Orff: Remapping Cities for Climate Change

If our cities are going to survive rising seas, we’re
going to need someone as inventive as Kate Orff. On the south shore of  Staten Island, which was devastated by Hurricane Sandy’s
storm surge, her landscape-architecture and urban design firm, SCAPE, is
constructing a “living breakwater,” a series of barriers and wildlife
habitats to make the coast more resilient. A project in Lexington, Kentucky,
will turn the footprint of a polluted creek into an interactive path
spotlighting the region’s unique limestone. In Brooklyn’s notoriously polluted
Gowanus Canal, SCAPE aims to reintroduce native oysters, as an all-natural
filtration system. “It’s probably overwhelming for the next generation,
given the problems they’ve inherited,” Orff says. “I try to match
this anxiety with projects that enable people to feel like they’re
participating in a process to change their cities and communities.” JB

the future issue

Laura Segall/Redux

Sue Sisley: Hard Proof of the Benefits of Pot

When it comes to marijuana, the primary obstacle
preventing widespread medical breakthroughs is a lack of clinical trials.
Researchers are only allowed to use marijuana grown by a single farm at the
University of Mississippi – the pot is significantly less potent and sometimes
arrives at laboratories covered in mold. The approval process for new research
requires sign-off from two federal agencies, and often takes years. Enter Sue
Sisley, an Arizona physician who has made it her mission to establish the
benefits of cannabis while simultaneously drawing attention to the bureaucratic
stranglehold hindering research. Her advocacy work helped roll back a number of
onerous pot research requirements. This year, even as the DEA began accepting
applications for additional growers to compete with Mississippi, Sisley exposed
the “sub-optimal study drug” on a PBS NewsHour segment. “The
U.S. government has systematically impeded this work for years,” she says.
“We were forced to become activists. We really just wanted to do the
science.” ACL

the future issue

Ford Foundation

Darren Walker: Philanthropy Aimed at the Wealth Gap

The nation’s major philanthropies have long operated by noblesse oblige, seeking to blunt the sharp edges of capitalism by funding programs that sustain the poor. Under the leadership of Darren Walker, the Ford Foundation is taking a different tack. “In philanthropy we must move from a perspective of generosity to a perspective of justice,” Walker told a conference in Stockholm in October. “We need to look at the root causes of injustice, of poverty, of climate change.” Walker began his career redeveloping housing in Harlem, then spearheaded the Rockefeller Foundation’s rebuilding programs in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina. Now leading the nation’s third-largest foundation, with a $12 billion endowment, he is pioneering a model of disruptive philanthropy, targeting the causes of inequality. In April, he announced a $1 billion investment in socially beneficial businesses, including builders of affordable housing in the U.S. and companies expanding credit in the developing world. “We are putting a significant amount of our money,” Walker said, “where our mission is.” TD

the future issue

Sarah Deragon

KJ Erickson: Imagining a Money-Free Society

KJ Erickson’s online marketplace, Simbi, wasn’t necessarily designed for disaster relief. The site hosts 175,000 users, who offer services like legal advice, language lessons and tantric counseling in exchange for credits to trade in the future. The idea is to offer “a supplemental economy,” says Erickson. “A lot of people are struggling to make ends meet in the dollar-based economy.” But when Hurricane Harvey devastated Houston, she says, “we saw a lot of people posting services related to the hurricane.” On the site’s “pay it forward” option, users offered free shelter and other services to displaced victims, a practice that’s been repeated in the aftermaths of Hurricane Irma and the Las Vegas shootings. “We became an emergency-relief campaign,” she says. TS

the future issue

Karl Mondon/Newscom

Brian Armstrong: The Online-Spending Revolution

Before Brian Armstrong launched Coinbase, a user-friendly
way to buy, sell and store online currencies like Bitcoin, the only way to
purchase cryptocurrency was wiring money to an unregulated exchange in Japan or
Slovenia. “It turned out the killer feature everybody wanted,” he
says, “was to buy and sell using funds from their bank.” Coinbase’s
Bitcoin banking system has since allowed 11.9 million users to exchange more
than $40 billion in digital assets. Already, some employees in nations like
Argentina, where the currency is unstable, choose to receive salaries in
Bitcoin. This year, Coinbase launched Toshi, a mobile-messenger app designed as
a bank replacement, which offers a digital wallet and the ability to send
messages and money to other users worldwide. “There’s really this gold
rush that’s going on,” says Armstrong. He ultimately sees Bitcoin – or one
of its younger rivals – treated as a true global currency. And given
crypto-currencies’ inherent security and seamless exchange, Armstrong believes
the next step is a thoroughly monetized Internet, where every “like”
has a tiny amount of money attached. “If you’re a moderator on a
subreddit, you’re just doing it because you’re passionate,” Armstrong
says. “But in this new world, you can imagine thousands of people earning
a living, either curating the content or managing the community or providing
insightful answers to people. It makes the GDP of the whole Internet go up.” BPE

the future issue

Cheap Science: Prakesh with a paper microscope

Ryumin Alexander/ZUMA

Manu Prakash: High-Tech for Low-Cost Medicine

Manu Prakash, a Stanford bioengineering professor and recipient of a MacArthur “genius grant” in 2016, was visiting a medical clinic in Uganda several years ago when he saw something alarming: Staffers were using an expensive centrifuge – vital in the detection of diseases like malaria and tuberculosis – as a doorstop. They had no electricity to power it, he said. Prakash, 37, has grown accustomed to scenes like this while traveling through resource-starved parts of the world. To help, he’s devoted himself to what he calls “frugal science: the idea that if you make science accessible and scalable, it will have impacts on global health and education beyond our imagination.”

Prakash’s experience in Uganda led him and his team of researchers to develop a cheap centrifuge that anyone could use, despite limited funds and minimal training. First, they scrutinized a variety of simple spinning toys, eventually settling on the centuries-old whirligig as their model. The result is the Paperfuge: paper discs fitted with tubes that can hold blood samples, connected to twine strings that allow a user to spin the discs at up to 125,000 rpm, thereby separating out, say, malaria parasites. To study those parasites, a user might deploy another ingenious invention of Prakash’s, the Foldscope – an origami-inspired paper microscope capable of high-powered imaging, the component materials of which cost just $1.

At least 50,000 Foldscopes have been distributed in 135 countries. Someone used one to study air pollutants in China; others have tested for counterfeit drugs and diagnosed animal and plant diseases. Tools like these, Prakash says, represent “a means of creativity. Sometimes we forget how wonderful this world is. If we can bring that to people, we can change their attitudes toward problems. If we make people curious, I’d call it a success.” JW

the future issue

Gene doctor: Zhang in his CRISPR lab at the Broad Institute.

Tony Luong

Feng Zhang: Medicine’s New Frontier

In 2013, when MIT molecular biologist Feng Zhang was just 32, he became the first scientist to successfully edit human cells using CRISPR, a gene-modifying technology that could ultimately be used to fix cellular mutations. The technology is now leading breakthroughs in treating HIV, cancer and neurodegenerative diseases – to say nothing of its potential for re-engineering coral reefs and harnessing algae’s biopower. “It’s like a renaissance period,” Zhang says. “We have wanted to do this for a long time, and we are now reaching a stage where we can.”

CRISPR uses a bacterial system to snip DNA with the simplicity of an Easy-Bake Oven. To treat diseases like leukemia and Alzheimer’s, scientists foresee targeting genetic mutations with, well, near-surgical precision. At the same time, the tech is being used to research seed size, advance microscope resolution, modify pig organs and develop virus resistance. Another godfather of CRISPR, Harvard’s George Church, is investigating whether CRISPR might even revive extinct species like the woolly mammoth – he’s splicing its DNA into Asian elephant cells. CRISPR will soon become part of an emerging line of cancer gene therapies. “It’s the holy grail for cancer,” says Rick Young, whose MIT lab has deployed CRISPR to close in on a key genetic cause of the disease. “We’re doing the best work of our careers – we’re at the epicenter of a revolution.”

Revolutions, though, can go awry. Recently, DARPA, a military research agency, began funding technology to thwart genetic catastrophes. Intelligence agencies reportedly have started their own development teams as well. “A thousand dollars of CRISPR stuff and a toilet, and you have a bioweapon,” says Hank Greely, a Stanford bioethicist. “That makes me nervous.”

For now, Zhang is leading a search for genomic tools that could one day surpass CRISPR, systems that work with even greater accuracy, speed and bulk. “It is an exciting time to be a biologist,” he says. BW

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